Finding Hope in Global Exchange

by Angela Wiley


Mair Francis, Hywel Francis, Elizabeth Sanders and Evan Smith respond to questions.

After a car ride through the fall colors of Appalachia, I found my way to Whitesburg, Kentucky where the lobby of Appalshop Inc was full of community members, snacks and good conversation. The After Coal project teamed up with staff at Appalshop and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to organize a forum to discuss policies for sustainable community development.  Honored guests Mair Francis and Hywel Francis traveled from Wales to eastern Kentucky to share information about the cornucopia of community and government supported initiatives that have been tested in former mining communities of South Wales.

Mair and Hywel Francis were joined by WMMT-FM staff Elizabeth Sanders, After Coal director Tom Hansell  and Panelists Evan Smith from the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and Robin Gabbard from the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky .  The group watched short film clips and discussed how to create healthy communities after coal mines close. The first question from the audience, about finding and hanging on to hope in hard times, set the mood for a discussion rooted in desires, but also in reality.

Gabby Gillespie asks a question about women and labor.

Gabby Gillespie asks a question about women and labor.

Hywel and Mair Francis discussed three areas vital to community regeneration: investment in education, environmental reclamation, and locally controlled community funds.  Evan Smith discussed the potential to use funds from the federal abandoned mine lands fund for community development, and Robin Gabbard explained how the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky helped provide educational opportunities for the regions youth.


Hywel and Mair acknowledged that there is a  long road for communities in South Wales to recover from the industry collapse. “The great defining moment, really, was thirty years ago when we had the great miners’ strike of ’84-’85…we had to develop a new sense of community” reflected Hywel. In eastern Kentucky, and in many pockets of the southern Appalachian mountains, communities are just starting to talk about a life after coal through. In the United States, funding mechanisms for community based solutions may look different — but the attitudes and efforts required to build resilient communities after coal are not nationally determined. Through this visit from Hywel and Mair Francis, forum participants were able to ask the panel and themselves difficult questions about sustainable solutions for Appalachian mining communities.

Mair and Hywel Francis share their experiences from South Wales.

Mair and Hywel Francis share their experiences from South Wales.

The community forum in Whitesburg, KY is the second of three forums featuring the work of the After Coal project. A forum to discuss the role of youth and the arts in community regeneration will be held October 28 on the campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan, KY.

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Connecting Mining Communities: Whitesburg Forum

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalshop, and the After Coal team are excited to converge on Tuesday, October 7 in Whitesburg with guests from Wales.

This will be the second of three forums about just transition in the coalfields. Mair Francis, founder of the DOVE Workshop, and Hywel Francis, a Labour Member of Parliament for Aberavon, Wales, will offer stories from former coal communities in Wales.

WalesForumAdEvent Date:
October 7, 2014 – 6:00pm to 9:00pm
Event Venue:
Appalshop Theater
91 Madison Ave, Whitesburg KY


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Homegrown Tourism Forum Report

After Coal director Tom Hansell presented at a forum co-sponsored by the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council in Elkhorn City, Kentucky September 18.  He shares his reflections on the event.


This mural created by local students working with artist Susan Steinman points the way to a riverside trail. Photo by Tom Hansell


A lot of water has flowed under the bridge that spans the Russell Fork River in downtown Elkhorn City (population 1000) since my last visit.  This communtiy and its people have been close to my heart for a long time.  I made my first documentary The Breaks of the Mountain (1999) about local efforts to use the rivers and trails surrounding Elkhorn City to drive adventure tourism.   The Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council formed during the production of the documentary and has been a driving force in celebrating the unique cultural and natural heritage of the area.

The world has changed a great deal is the 15 years since I finished The Breaks of The Mountain.  Coal employment was on the decline even during the Clinton era and coal production in East Kentucky peaked in 2001.  Over the past two years the bottom has dropped out of the market for central Appalachian coal.

The local economy is just as tough as it was in 1999, some might say it is tougher. Several storefronts in Elkhorn City still sit empty, and the venerable Rusty Fork Cafe on Patty Loveless boulevard closed its doors during the past year.  But many residents in Elkhorn City have plans for a better future.  One bright spot is the The Pine Mountain Trail State Park, a 110 mile trail on the ridge that forms the Kentucky/Virginia state line.  A  trail head opened in Elkhorn City a few years ago, and many residents see the combination of the trail, the nearby Breaks Interstate Park, and the whitewater of the Russell Fork River as a natural foundation for a new local economy. The Heritage Council is helping to host a 100 mile trail race in a few weeks, and it is great to see so much energy around the Pine Mountain Trail.


Tim Belcher, president of the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council introduces After Coal director Tom Hansell at the forum. Photo by Steve Ruth

At the forum in Elkhorn City, I showed a short video that highlighted two examples of local tourism efforts  from former coal communities in Wales.  The first was a private enterprise called Call of The Wild.  This company uses the outdoors to provide management training for businesses throughout the UK.   The second example is a mountain bike park built on an abandoned mine site (now public property) in Glyncorrwyg.  The local community all pitched in one pound per household to match government support of the project.

After watching the stories from Wales, local residents shared their visions for the future and identified obstacles that may prevent their vision from being realized.    A series of great ideas quickly surfaced, some as simple as improving signage so that visitors can quickly locate attractions. Others offered long term plans such as building a ropes course and a training center on riverside property.  The main obstacle identified by residents of Elkhorn City is the lack of access to development capital.  Local banks are often wary of funding start up businesses with a high rate of failure, and local government is strapped for cash.

A view from one of the overlooks in the Breaks Interstate Park.  Photo by Tom Hansell

A view from one of the overlooks in the Breaks Interstate Park. Photo by Tom Hansell

These are not just local challenges for Elkhorn City, but challenges faced by residents in rural communities throughout the US and Great Britain.  To create a better future, local people will need to be creative about using local assets and building partnerships to access the funds they need to regenerate their community.

The Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council works to ensure that unique local assets are at the heart of any plans to build a future after coal.  This place based approach provides a vital element for creating sustainable coalfield communities.

The Homegrown Tourism forum in Elkhorn City is the first of three forums featuring the work of the After Coal project.  A forum to discuss sustainable development policies will be held October 7 at the Appalchop Theater in Whitesburg, KY; and a forum to discuss the role of youth and the arts in community regeneration will be held October 28 on the campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan, KY.


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Lessons from Wales to Help Homegrown Tourism in Appalachia

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After Coal director Tom Hansell will travel to Elkhorn City, Kentucky September 18 to present clips from the After Coal documentary. This free public event will be held between 5 and 7 pm September 18 in the Elkhorn City Public Library. The forum is co-sponsored by the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council and is supported by a grant from the Chorus Foundation.

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After Coal Presents: Community Forums in Eastern Kentucky

14265784357_5b2773e123_oMark your calendar! In September and October, the After Coal team has planned three community forums for residents and policy makers in eastern Kentucky.

Short video clips from our documentary and guests from Wales will place the challenges facing Appalachian coal communities in a global context.


Community Forum Schedule

Homegrown Tourism
Thursday, September 18, 5:00 – 6:30pm
Elkhorn City Public Library, 150 East Main Street  Elkhorn City, KY
With Tim Belcher, Elkhorn Area Heritage Council
And Tom Hansell, Appalachian State University


Funding Sustainable Development

Tuesday, October 7, 7:00-8:30 pm
Appalshop Theater, 91 Madison Avenue, Whitesburg, KY
With Hywel Francis, Member of Parliament representing Aberavon, Wales
Mair Francis, Founder of DOVE workshop

Youth, Arts, and Community Regeneration

Tuesday, October 28, 6:00 – 8:00 pm
Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College – Harlan Campus 164 Ball Park Road, Harlan, KY
With Richard Davies, Media instructor at Merthyr Tydfill College, Wales
And Robert Gipe, Higher Ground Project, Harlan County

Photo credit: Steve Bustin, via Medical Media Training

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Mapping the Music of Coal

One of the goals of the After Coal project is to employ digital story telling technology to deepen connections between Appalachia and Wales.  Aaron Pardieu has been working on a “song map” that uses the Place Stories interface to enter music collected for After Coal on Google maps.  Aaron explains his work:

Greetings to the After Coal community!


Aaron Pardieu is currently working as an intern as the Appalshop Media Arts Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Aaron Pardieu and I am a graduate student at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. While I have been living in the mountains of NC for roughly three years now, I am originally from Louisville, Kentucky and spent my college years in Richmond, KY. I am currently earning a Master of Arts in Appalachian Studies.

I began working with the After Coal team in January as a Graduate Assistant. What attracted me most to the After Coal project was its neutral tone. The project is focused on documenting solutions rather than the damage. Participatory revitalization projects are key to providing relief to both the Welsh and Appalachian regions.


PlaceStories Map Screen Shot

So far, my involvement with the project has focused on the music featured in After Coal. We selected six songs that we thought best represented the project and created short videos of the performances to be posted to Place Stories. The innovative site uses a Google maps interface to share stories between different communities around the world. The site was designed for use in rural communities with limited internet access, such as the coalfields of Appalachia and Wales.

The songs we selected include traditional work songs as well as original music by artists from both regions. Songs from the Appalachian region include Justin Taylor’s composition Better You Find My Devil, Lord performed by the cast of Higher Ground, a community based theater project in Harlan County, Kentucky and Coal Miners’ Blues performed by Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and Mike Seeger for an audience of miners in Onllwyn Wales. 

Songs from the United Kingdom include an original piece by Welsh artists Christopher Hastings and Huw Pudner titled The Gates of Cardiff Jail chronicling the worker uprising in the Welsh town of Merthyr in 1831, and Blackleg Miner, a union song from northeastern England that was featured in the 1990 documentary From the Shadows of Power by Jean Donahue. 

These short video clips provide great examples of how music helps build community. This concept of ‘community’ is valuable tool for building power in regions that face serious economic challenges from an increasingly globalized economy.

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Crossing borders, deepening exchange

After Coal producer Patricia Beaver and director Tom Hansell traveled to Wales early this month to screen a work in progress of the documentary. The pair returned to the communities where they recorded scenes for the upcoming film to get feedback. Tom Hansell writes about his experience:


The M4 expressway uses the Severn Bridge to cross the border between England and Wales.

The Severn Bridge crosses the border between England and Wales.

Crossing the Severn Bridge, I began to get nervous. Some of this nervousness had to do with driving in the left hand side of the road, which felt dangerous to my American brain. But the major source of my anxiety was our plan to screen a draft of our documentary to the people who appear in it and asking for their honest feedback.

Many documentary makers believe in keeping their work under wraps until it is finely polished. However, I was taught by the filmmakers at the Appalshop media arts center that the communities you work in are your most important audience.  While this participatory process can be time consuming and occasionally difficult, I still find it a necessary part of grounding my documentary projects, especially when I am working in a culture that I am not a part of, such as the former coalfields of South Wales.

Pat and I listened to many diverse perspectives in our series of screenings across the South Wales valleys. One of the most interesting groups we screened to was a mix of students, poets, and community sponsored by Merthyr Tydfil College.


director Tom Hansell enters the Red House

The screening took place in the newly renovated Red House – the old town hall and the site of the first democratic government in a town that had been dominated by the 19th century coal and steel barons who built Merthyr Tydfil. The mix of young and old in our focus group yielded interesting conversation. Many of the older folks had participated in the historic 1984 miners strike, while most of the students were born the following decade and knew little of the events.


The Red House in Merthyr Tydfill


In some ways, this generational shift is part of the shift from an industrial economy that built towns like Merthyr Tydfill. However, a shifting economic base is not easy to navigate, and many young people in Wales still struggle to find job opportunities. Some of the students we talked to were planning to move from their hometown to the coastal cities of Cardiff or Swansea in search of better opportunity. Richard Davies, the director of the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College, is one exception. After living away from Wales, he found his way back home and now works to create opportunities for young people to create artistic projects that perpetuate life and culture of Merthyr.

This place based approach to community building parallels to the work we do at the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, as well as at our partner organizations such as the Appalshop media arts center in Whitesburg, KY.  As we shared ideas of how to reinvent coal communities with our focus groups in Wales, my nervousness dissipated and many wonderful conversations started. My hope is that these conversations will strengthen the connections between two deeply rich cultures.

- Tom Hansell, June 2014

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